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St. Louis-area startups land cash to make crops better, stronger, more efficient

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Wells Fargo Innovation Incubation

Company leaders and Danforth principal investigators at the Danforth Center. Photo courtesy of Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator

ST. LOUIS — Three St. Louis-area sustainable agriculture startups are receiving up to $250,000 to further their research on crop security.

Edison Agrosciences Inc., Peptyde Bio and Synthetic Vector Design are a part of a group selected by the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator Program, which provides grants for the startups to collaborate with scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Their projects use biological tools to fight crop diseases and create domestic supplies of plant materials.

The program is funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation and housed at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

“With growing populations coupled with environmental shifts, farmers need technologies that will provide more yield using available resources ultra-efficiently and in the least harmful way,” said Trish Cozart, a program manager at the national lab.

Edison Agrosciences is trying to increase the amount of rubber naturally produced by sunflowers to create a domestic supply and decrease deforestation of rubber trees.

Most natural rubber is produced in Southeast Asia, the company says, making the U.S. dependent on one geographical region for the substance.

Sunflower leaves naturally contain 1%-2% rubber, and the company says increasing that percentage by a few points can make it a viable source of the substance.

Antimicrobial peptides, a natural part of plant immune systems, are key to research at Peptyde Bio. The company is using the peptides, which kill fungal cells, to create fungicides for crops in hopes of replacing expensive and toxic chemicals, to which some fungi, like gray mold disease, are developing resistance.

Synthetic Vector Design is developing techniques for placing disease-fighting DNA into cells, helping plants fight infections.

Plant diseases cost the global economy up to $220 billion annually, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

Karla Roeber, the Danforth Center’s vice president for public and government affairs, said scientists will help the companies set up experiments needed to further validate their technology. The startups will have access to facilities and equipment such as greenhouses and bioimaging.

Jenny Flores, Wells Fargo’s head of small business growth philanthropy, said future generations are counting on this one to solve these problems, and increase food security.

Companies selected in previous Innovation Incubation cohorts have since raised $1.28 billion in funding, according to Wells Fargo.

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